India Invented – Ep11 The age of empire

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Imagine the court of Akbar the Great. The emperor sits in Fatehpur Sikri,
surrounded by his courtiers. On a platform in the middle of the Anup Talaab,
Tansen, the legendary musician, is in concert. Such is his artistry
that he commands the very elements through his music. As one of the nine jewels of Akbar’s court,
Tansen took music to new heights. The Imperial order also honored him in every way. Yet, such was the humility of the great artist
that he asked that when he died, he should be buried in a simple grave
near the tomb of his Sufi master Mohammed Khaus. The austere tomb of the musician is over-shadowed
by that of the ‘pir’ , to whom petitions are addressed even today. Tansen’s humble grave too
is a place for pilgrimage. Musicians of all sorts, from respected pundits and ustads
to ordinary street singers continue to find inspiration at Tansen’s tomb. The popular belief is that eating the leaves of the Tamarind tree
that grows over the grave helps develop music in the throat. [He used to sing sitting under this tree. The music has seeped into its very leaves.
Eating the leaves makes the voice melodious.] Tansen’s brilliance points to the genius of his emperor who created Fatehpur Sikri as a symbol of the culture of Unity
that he did so much to establish. 400 years after Fatehpur Sikri was built and abandoned, it retains a sense of power, vitality and grandeur. These perhaps reflect Akbar,
who had these buildings commissioned. Akbar also represented through these buildings,
India’s composite culture, which was still developing in his time. The same concept was taken to a more abstract level
when he proclaimed the syncretic Din-e-Elahi, and proclaimed sulahe-kul
(the need for peace and amity among all). India under the Mughals was a paradox. It was a combination of power and culture,
economic wealth and spiritual humility. The Mughals took pride
in their Timurid Central-Asian ancestry. And at the same time,
their ever-deepening roots in India. There was also a sense of Imperial arrogance
and commercial smugness of standing on the threshold of medievalism and modernity,
and missing a step in either direction. It was the best of times. It was also the worst of times. The line of the grand Mughals for all their glory
would eventually end up in the pathetic Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled from his beloved Red Fort. Commerce would ultimately prevail over empire. But all that lay in the future. Between the 15th and the 17th centuries,
India had a massive trade surplus based mostly on
its efficient, low-cost textile production, and of course,
on the export of pepper. The Spaniards and other Europeans
began bringing silver to India from the americas during the 16th century. Massive infusion of new money stimulated
the development of textile production, and the growth, distribution and processing of cotton and dyes. It also boosted the production and distribution of food
for the producers and traders. In cities like Agra, population, urbanization and production,
all increased during the heydays of the Mughals. Some of the surplus was skimmed off
and went into grand imperial architecture. The Panchmahal at Fatehpur Sikri
symbolizes society and economy as they developed during the Mughal period. Society took a pyramidal shape with many people at the bottom
and very few at the top. The distribution of income became increasingly unequal. The upper level became smaller in size
but more richer and opulent in their lifestyles while the large majority comprised and remained peasants. However, during this period an elaborate but efficient system
of land revenue collection was set up. This was carried out by Raja Todarmal, Akbar’s minister who had earlier worked
in the same capacity for Sher Shah suri. Sher Shah had ruled over India
from the Purana Qila in delhi for just 5 years. During that time,
he sowed the seeds of many institutions which flowered in akbar’s long reign of 50 years. Although Sher shah ruled for a short period,
he developed the concept of Imperial India. He built roads connecting various parts of the empire
from Calcutta to Peshawar and beyond. And on this road,
now called the Grand Trunk road or Sher Shah Suri Marg, he erected ‘Kos-Minars’. These minars indicated distances between different points. He also built Sarais or guest houses for travelers
and introduced a post system or Daak System. This tomb of sher Shah at Sasaram in Bihar
symbolizes the grandeur of the system that he tried to build. Sher Shah had begun his career from Bihar,
and like the Mauryans, many centuries earlier, he made that region the base
from which to set up a widespread imperial system. Akbar continued Sher Shah’s work in more senses than one. Not only did he consolidate the revenue system,
but he also established an imperial military bureaucracy through the Mansabdari system
which spread out from the court to various parts of the empire. Through the Mansab system,
Akbar built an apparatus of a centralized bureaucracy which was not only a bureaucracy
but a military organization. It is difficult to believe that back in 1595,
or even earlier in the 1580s, you will see that a post should not be a post
and an employee should just get a rank, a numerical attached to his name
and that numerical would define everything; His personal status, his personal salary, his obligations. And he is at the disposal of the emperor,
who could assign him any duty and can send him anywhere. The structure known as the Diwan-e-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri
is said to have been the place where Akbar formulated some of his radical and innovative ideas. The central pillar and the radial spokes are perhaps a metaphor of seeking the one truth with the help of many truths. The outcome of this quest was the Din-e-Elahi – a synthesis of religious ideas that produced
a system suited to the Indian genius. Akbar’s efforts to evolve a coherence
out of the varied religious thought of his time has been interpreted by some
as an attempt to create a new religion. The attempt of Akbar and his advisers to construct
a theory of ‘society and state in which it would be recognized
that no religion is true but all religions should be tolerated’ … and that
‘the culture of all traditions was inherently one’ … – I think these two points are of signal importance
in any comparative history of world thought. Akbar also retained his faith in Sufism
as is evident at Fatehpur Sikri. The beautiful Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti
is testimony to Akbar’s personal devotion to the Sufi saint, after whom he named his first born son, prince Salim,
who later ruled as Jahangir. At the same time,
Akbar both looked outwards and inwards in his spiritual quest. He discussed religious matters
with Islamic scholars both Sunni and shia… … Hindu pundits of various sects, … … Zoroastrians, and Jesuit priests,
who brought Christianity to his court. Akbar was able to build massive symbols of power
like the Buland Darwaza because he had recourse to immense revenues from what was then
the world’s most productive land. To generate this wealth,
Akbar needed to strengthen his control over the Gangetic Doab lands, whose fertility was renewed year after year by the mighty rivers that flowed through the plains of North India. The fort that Akbar built at Allahabad,
commanded the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna and aided the power of his empire
and its expansion in different directions. One of the significant but often overlooked aspects of Akbar’s expansion of empire
is his conquest of Bengal… which by itself was capable of feeding the whole of India
in times of distress. Akbar’s conquest of Bengal also marked the incursion of the imperial forces
into the iron-rich tribal area of Jharkhand. The attention of historians has been focused
on the expansion of the Mughal empire towards the north-west but much more important was their attempt to unify India
through expanding Southwards. It is not for nothing the most important monument of Akbar,
the Buland Darwaza, faces southwards. Akbar’s successor Jahangir
continued the expansionist policy of his father. But his political ambitions
were over-shadowed in popular imagination by his image as the romantic rebel,
Salim.The fact is that
Salim did raise the banner of revolt against Akbar and for a while,
he sought sanctuary in the kingdoms of Central India. This Jahangiri Mahal at Orcha
is believed to be one of the places which Salim made his temporary abode. Jahangir’s reign as emperor,
carried out from Agra, Lahore and Kashmir, was marked by the presence of his ambitious and crafty queen,
Noor Jahan. She had so much influence over the emperor that in some respects,
she became even more important than him in state-craft. Paralyzed by illness and indecision, opium and wine, Jahangir perhaps got too embroiled in palace intrigue to pay full attention
to the need to consolidate the imperial system. So much so that he came to distrust his elder son, Khusro,
who lies buried here in Allahabad. Indian history is replete with instances of sons
who have imprisoned their fathers to become kings. But perhaps, there is only one instance of a father
who imprisoned his son in order to become the king. This was Jahangir
and he imprisoned his son Khusro. There was a great deal of intrigue when Akbar was about to die. And Jahangir felt that he was being by-passed
in favor of his son Khusro, who not only took greater interest in affairs of state,
but who was also deeply involved in the Akbar-kind… …of philosophy, religion, looking after the people and
the unity of the country. Khusro also had the backing of his maternal uncle ManSingh
and that made him a very formidable force. So, when Jahangir did become King, one of the first things he did was
he became obsessively jealous of his son and the son also realized this. So, Khusro rebelled. As it happens, the rebellion of prince Khusro was crushed
and he was ordered to be blinded. The blinding is an interesting story. It was considered that blind people could not be good rulers. And therefore Jahangir ordered that his son should be blinded so as to permanently disqualify him from becoming a king. Unfortunately for Jahangir
(or fortunately for Khusro), the blinding operation failed
and Khusro regained his sight. After this, he was imprisoned and kept there for 15 years. He died ultimately in the custody of his brother Khurram,
who later became Shah Jahan. By the time Khusro’s brother Shah Jahan came on the scene, there was a certain smugness about the Mughals arising out of the immense wealth that they commanded. Shah Jahan used this wealth to create wondrous monuments,
among them is the Red Fort in Delhi. It’s difficult today to imagine the grandeur of ShahJahan-abad, the city that Shah Jahan built. But contemporary visitors described it
to be more impressive than any city in Europe. In any event,
the establishment of the Red Fort meant not only one more round of urbanization of delhi but also the location of the capital over there once again. The essential thrust of the Mughal empire,
as of the Mauryans and the Khiljis, was to expand from north to south. The Barah-dari
that Shah jahan built on top of the Devagiri-Daulatabad fort represents his urge to dominate the deccan just as Alauddin Khilji
and Mohammed Bin Tughlaq had attempted earlier. Shah Jahan’s son, the much misunderstood but definitely bigoted Aurangzeb,
continued with the Deccan campaign. Aurangzeb encountered the most effective resistance
from the Marathas, most notable among them was Shivaji, one of whose campaign bases
was here at the Sinhagad fort. Aurangzeb also took on Muslim powers in the Deccan. The city of Hyderabad, famous for its Charminar,
bears memories of the last of the grand Mughals. Aurangzeb conquered the Golconda fort
and brought this part of the Deccan under imperial rule as well. Aurangzeb was powerful but not popular. His re-imposition of the Jaziya poll-tax on Hindus could have been to replenish the treasuries
depleted by the expensive Deccan campaigns. But it was seen as evidence
of his bigotry and discrimination. His policy of religious discrimination was certainly …
such a break from standard Mughal theory of state and polity, that complete shift to Sharia,
(at least in theory) so that any act of religious tolerance becomes a concession rather than an essential development
of a given state assumption. You see the difference! That would seem to me to be a very grave mistake on his part, from the point of view
of the prosperity and survival of the Mughal empire. In spite of his ruthlessness,
Aurangzeb lived with great simplicity. His tomb in Khuldabad
is a model of austerity. The open-air tomb of Aurangzeb is in some respects
much like the simple grave of Tansen. However, Aurangzeb was no lover of music. In fact, he banned it. Even when music lovers took out a mock funeral procession
in protest against this ban, Aurangzeb did not relent. He ordered them to bury music so deep
that its notes would never emerge again. In the end, it is music that lives on
while the Mughal emperor lies deep underground. One of the most poignant aspect of the mughals relates to their obsession with death
and the commemoration of death. The most enduring monuments of the Mughal empire are tombs. There is an irony about Humayun’s tomb. It was conceived by Humayun’s widow
as a grandiose tribute to the late emperor. In fact,
Humayun had ruled over only a small part of India. And that too for a short period. This architectural ancestor of the Taj Mahal
is thus a deliberate attempt to create an impression of imperial grandeur. Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra near Agra
was ordered by himself and completed by his son Jahangir. It’s not only a monument to genuinel imperial grandeur but is also a reflection of the personality of Akbar himself. The tomb is a good example
of the characteristics of the Mughal empire since it blends elements of hindu,
muslim and other architectural styles. The most well-known of Mughal monuments
is of-course the incomparable Taj Mahal. From an enduring monument to love,
it has become a setting for perfect photo op. The locals of course have got used to it. Interestingly, the shape of its dome
might have been inspired by the humble hay-stacks which dot the region today
as they must have done during the time the Taj Mahal was being designed. There is of course nothing humble about the Taj Mahal. It’s an extremely ostentatious monument to the past,
without regard to the present or the future. However, the cruel present intruded
even up on the grand Mughals. The Bibi-ka-Makbara,
the tomb of Shah Jahan’s daughter-in-law (Aurangzeb’s wife) is a replica of the Taj Mahal,
a poor man’s imitation of Imperial grandeur. By the time it was built
the immense resources of the empire had been squandered. It was a triumph of style over substance. The popular myth is that History repeats itself. This is wrong. In fact, it is only the historians who repeat themselves,
and others who want to make history. The attempt by Aurangzeb’s son to build a memorial for his mother
on the lines of the memorial which Shah Jahan had built for his wife, is one such attempt
where a replica is sought to be created of the original. And the replica has a certain cheapness about it,
a certain tired look about it. The fact is that men make their own histories. But they don’t make them any way they like. Men are determined by the circumstances
in which that history is made. History is also made by those who are often mere footnotes in the books of historians
– the peasants. The peasants had been the source of wealth
that had built the grand Mughal edifices. And it was from them
that resistance to the empire grew. The Jats, the Sikhs, the Namdharis and the Marathas – all rose in revolt
as the exactions on them increased beyond the limits of tolerance. This agrarian crisis converted itself into a political crisis when the Zamindars
began to throw off the yoke of the central authority and also made use of peasant distress –
particularly the Jats and the Marathas. Among many reasons for the decline of the Mughal empire, the most important
was the weakness of its agrarian system. The most visible points of the system were regional rulers like those of Jaipur who sought to emulate the Mughals
through architectural extravagance. Below such regional Satraps there were different layers of Mansabdars, Jagirdars and Zamindars – all extracting surplus from the peasants. For their part, the peasants tolerated the exactions with fortitude
and even passivity. But when things got beyond endurance,
peasant activism destroyed empires. It was a series of peasant revolts
that sacked the Mughal empire. But it still took several centuries for the peasants to rise from the footnote to the text of history.

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